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Published: 2002/07/14
by Dewey Hammond

12th Annual High Sierra Music Festival, Quincy, CA, 7/4-7

The 12th annual High Sierra Music Festival in Quincy, CA was pure madness, in the best sense of the word. Dusty. Hot. Tiring. Did I mention hot? Oh, and there’s the music. The festival provided four days and approximately 100 sets of some of the best music on today’s touring circuit, not to mention the late night jams that lasted until the soon-to-be-blazing sun was visible above.

Music was spread across five stages (Grandstand, Showcase, Vaudeville, Sun, Americana) and two music halls (High Sierra Music Hall, Funk’n Jamhouse). One had to be sure not to judge a band by its venue; not all of the best sets occurred on the Grandstand. Many of the most inspiring moments could be credited to the handful of up-and-coming acts that wowed largely unsuspecting crowds. Particle lit up the crowd at both Showcase and Vaudeville, joined at the latter performance by drummer Mike Miro of Umphrey’s McGee and the two men responsible for Cabaret Diosa’s gripping horn section (Arturo “Gigante” Sabado and Don Grandissimo de la Misconcepcion). It was surprising, given Particle’s ever-increasing California notoriety, how many times one overheard something similar to, Wow, I had heard Particle could rip it, but man, did you hear that set?’ Raq also made quite an impression during its first California appearance, and this Burlington, VT-based quartet is welcome back to Northern California anytime. Other notable side stage appearances included singer/songwriter Nina Storey and the NYC-based Gabe Dixon Band.

While the side stages provided a bit more intimacy, and the methaphorically hungrier acts that graced these stages played with perhaps a bit more excitement, that’s not to say the Grandstand didn’t hold its own. But with acts like Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, Medeski Martin & Wood and Keller Williams, you expect quality music from the main stage. Hell, for sitting out in that hot sun, you deserve it.

The “playshops” (i.e., a performance that is one part music, one part Q&A) and the late-night jams were simply icing on the cake. Bruce Hornsby warmed up his playshop performance with some Bach and proceeded to cringe when he heard an audience member describe his playing as “noodling.” For your information, Hornsby does not noodle’ on the piano. Ever. Medeski greeted those awaiting his “keyboard swirl” playshop not with guest keyboardists, but with a drummer named Martin and a bassist named Wood. MMW fired up the crowd with an improvisational jam before taking about 25 minutes worth of questions from the audience. MMW discussed the transcending power of the musical language and the processes MMW utilizes for creating music “out of nowhere,” according to Medeski. While no one would have complained if Medeski had showed up with Hornsby or Melvin Seals instead, MMW’s surprise appearance allowed its fans to hear first hand what it is that makes MMW tick. It ultimately proved to be a fine precursor to MMW’s Grandstand appearance later that night, which featured guest appearances by both Col. Bruce Hampton and Karl Denson.

The late-night shows were not for the weary at High Sierra. With many festivalgoers retired for the night, Tea Leaf Green played with passion for its late-night appearance, despite a nearly empty auditorium (i.e., converted barn). MMW’s late-night show was so packed that many were left dancing outside. Perhaps the latest of all late-nights was Yonder Mountain String Band’s epic performance that ended at sunrise. Not surprisingly, Darol Anger joined the band for the entire session, lasting two sets and nearly four hours. What was surprising was an appearance by Garaj Mahal’s guitarist, Fareed Haque, for a handful of tunes including “Only A Northern Song,” by The Beatles.

But High Sierra is all about the unexpected. Just walking around the campgrounds, one was likely to see Jamie Janover under a tree, explaining the intricacies of his hammered dulcimer to curious onlookers in between songs, or Hanuman and friends, with their acoustic free folk funk, pleasing yet another festival crowd. The Grandstand wasn’t without surprises either. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band apparently got lost on the way to Quincy and missed its scheduled start time, so when The Motet finished its Showcase set, it moseyed on over to the Grandstand to join Cabaret Diosa and Sambada for an impromptu percussion jam featuring about 25 musicians, complete with a beautiful Latin singer and a handful of dancers. Quite a sight.

Yonder Mountain String Band had the honor of shutting down the main stage on the final night of the 12th annual High Sierra Music Festival. Certainly an honor, and the crowd was blessed with Darol Anger’s presence once again. The set culminated with a rousing version of J.J. Cale’s “If You’re Ever in Oklahoma,” before encoring with a jamgrass version of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train.” If the boys were tired from their sunrise set earlier that morning, it didn’t show, but either way, they’ve got all year to rest up before High Sierra 2003.

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